Rev Andrew McKearney’s Sunday Sermon for 19-Jan-14 — The Second Sunday of Epiphany Evening Service:
When we reflect on Jesus calling his first disciples to follow him, in order to understand the dramatic stories of fishermen leaving their nets, sons leaving their fathers and tax gatherers rising from their seat of custom, it is important to remember what was going on in the society at the time.
Galilee where Jesus was exercising his ministry was an oppressed area suffering from chronic political and economic instability. The country was occupied by the Romans, and that led to resentment and frustration.
In their desperation, some people left home to become freedom fighters, part of the Resistance movement, zealots as they were called. The zealot movement was started in Galilee in 6A.D. by Judas of Galilee and Zadok a Pharisee. Nazareth where Jesus had grown up was about two miles from Jaffa, the oldest and most important settlement in this part of the hill-country, and Jaffa became the rallying point for the armed opposition to the occupying Roman army in 66 A.D. Jesus’ ministry falls midway in the story of the 300 years’ Jewish war for religious and political freedom. For much of this period an armed uprising seemed the only solution to the zealot movement of Jesus’ day.
Their rallying cry was that no ruler could be recognised as sovereign except God alone. So people would disappear to the hills of Galilee as part of this movement. Their hero was Elijah the Old Testament prophet who had been zealous for God’s honour and had slaughtered the prophets of Baal. Their favourite text was the first commandment “thou shalt have no other gods beside me”.
And the Resistance Movement recruited people to follow them into the hills. “Follow us”, they said!
However because of the political and economic instability some people took to the hills as their way out of trouble.
Large wealthy landowners demanded high rents together with part of the harvest from their tenants. Tenants inevitably got into debt, particularly if harvests were poor, and what was the way out for them from debt? They were either taken to court and put in prison or sold with their family as slaves. So instead, if faced with large debt, many felt that the most honourable way out was to take to the hills and there live a wandering life – desperate people who resorted to violence, recruits for the Resistance movement.
Others disappeared by emigrating. They dreamt of a better future in another country. There were the usual stories of people getting rich and famous abroad, and some people took this option and went abroad – Alexandria in Egypt was a favourite destination.
Others became beggars and homeless people. As debts rose, landowners evicted people out of their houses and so they took to the streets and roads, finding places to sleep and to beg. If you were in any way disadvantaged or handicapped, blind or a leper, this was your permanent way of life, but others joined you, forced by the economic pressures of the day. And many of these, we hear of them often in the Gospels referred to as demon-possessed, were mentally unwell or soon became like that from their way of life.
So people were desperate, and families were torn apart due to the chronic political and economic instability of the day. Individuals disappeared abroad to seek fame and fortune – to the hills to join the resistance movement – to the streets to beg and avoid imprisonment – and still others to the wilderness.
The ones who went into the wilderness rejected armed resistance but opted for a radical religious life in community, somewhat similar to monks and nuns, praying for God to intervene. Their great hero was Moses who had led the people through the wilderness to the promised land. God, they hoped, would bring about another exodus even greater than the first exodus. So leave your family and possessions, was their cry, and follow us into the wilderness.
It was in this context that Jesus called people to follow him.
And wasn’t it perhaps better for a family to lose someone to this rabbi Jesus than for them to disappear into the hills? Wasn’t it better for someone to live with a new hope than to become homeless and lose their mind? Wasn’t it better perhaps for someone at least to stay in Galilee near their family and friends, than to go abroad?
The call to follow Jesus was a reasonable option for people, given their situation – and so it has always been! Political and economic contexts have varied (though there are some quite clear echoes with our own context). But ever since Jesus called his first disciples, the option to follow him has remained a choice for people – and it is still a reasonable option today!